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May 13, 2013

President tries to swat down growing controversies

Simultaneous investigations — and demands by Republican leaders for more — have put White House on the defensive

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tried to swat down a pair of brewing controversies Monday, de-nouncing as “outrageous” the targeting of conservative political groups by the federal IRS but angrily denying any administration cover-up after last year’s deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Simultaneous investigations — and demands by Republicans for more — have put the White House on the defensive, emboldened GOP lawmakers and threatened to overtake a second-term Obama agenda already off to a rocky start.

During a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the normally even-keeled Obama appeared agitated over the resurgent investigation into the September attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. He dismissed the Republican-driven effort as a “sideshow” that dishonors the four Americans who were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

“There’s no there there,” Obama declared in his first public comments since GOP lawmakers launched new hearings on the matter. “The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations.”

Seeking to keep another controversy from spinning out of control, the president rebuked the IRS for scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of groups with conservative titles such as “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names. Those responsible, Obama said, must be held “fully accountable.”

“I’ve got no patience with it,” he added. “I will not tolerate it and we will find out exactly what happened.”

The president said he first learned of the matter Friday when it was reported by news organizations. Spokesman Jay Carney said later that the White House counsel’s office was alerted on April 22 that the IRS inspector general was completing a review of an IRS office in Cincinnati.

Neither issue appears to be going away any time soon. On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked authors of an independent government review into the Benghazi attack to meet privately with committee investigators. And the House Ways and Means Committee said it plans to hold a hearing on the IRS matter on Friday.

The two controversies are the latest in a series of unexpected challenges that have consumed the White House since Obama began his second term in January. Among the others: the Boston Marathon bombings, Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and fresh nuclear provocations from North Korea.

It’s hardly the start Obama’s team envisioned after he solidly won re-election in November. The White House had hoped to achieve an early victory on immigration overhaul, make another run at a sweeping deficit reduction deal, and perhaps take a stab at tackling climate change.

But those plans were upended even before Obama’s inauguration, when the horrific December massacre of 20 school children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., thrust gun control to the forefront of Obama’s domestic agenda. That legislative effort failed on Capitol Hill last month, leaving Obama with a political defeat and giving critics of immigration reform more time to organize their opposition.

Obama still has an opportunity to reverse course and claim a big second-term victory if immigration changes can be approved. Draft legislation being debated in the Senate has bipartisan support, and Republicans have a political incentive to back an overhaul given the growing political power of Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2012.

For the White House, the challenge will be to keep Capitol Hill focused on immigration and other legislative priorities, not a persistent cycle of investigations.

“The American people want Washington to focus on the issues that matter most to them,” Carney said Monday. “The imperative for getting things done still exists.”

However, Republicans made clear that they plan to keep pressing the president on both Benghazi and the IRS.    

“The administration continues to lose credibility by failing to answer even the simplest questions, refusing to take full responsibility and failing to produce a plan to move forward,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told The Associated Press. “As we learned from Watergate, concealing information from the public is a dangerous practice.”

The Benghazi investigation has trailed Obama for months, with many Republicans focused on how the White House first explained the attacks to the American people. Administration officials initially said the attacks appeared to grow out of a spontaneous demonstration, though it later concluded that they were planned acts of terror.

 

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